- Understanding the Thought Process Behind Drum-Part Creation -
Whether you compose through electronic means or utilize an actual drum kit, it’s helpful to know what works best, what doesn’t & why. Regardless of method, the thought process behind creation is the same.
Brief audio snippets (green text) are scattered throughout this article. Opening the links as “new tabs” allows you to hear the example while you’re reading the corresponding description.
As a starting point, I’ve put together a short-list of variables. These are things I take into consideration when structuring drum parts for a new song.
- What’s the genre of the song?
For a multitude of reasons, I don't begin structuring a final drum part until song-basics are pretty well set.
By basics, I mean:
- A rough idea of lyrical content & subject matter
- Backing chord patterns (basics of the song's musical movement)
- Tentative song structure (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc.)
Those basic components tell me what type of song I'm dealing with. Regardless of personal preference, the drum part you craft should be an appropriate match for song & genre.
For example, a typical metal drum line probably won't fit well in a country/pop song.
By itself, the part may sound cool & impressive. More-so, if you happen to be a fan of metal. The thing is, no one will ever hear it by itself! It’ll only be heard within the context of the song.
Bottom line - writing new parts is always about how they affect the song as a whole, NOT about the part itself. As a drummer, I was slow to learn that lesson. As a songwriter, it was immediately obvious. Perspective is an amazing thing!
Genre is a vague concept. Because of that, it's not unusual for a song to straddle several. Proper arrangement choices (including drum parts) can help push that song in one direction or another.
Let’s look at a specific example (audio snippet #1) …say your song straddles country & pop. You could push it in the direction of country by employing twangy guitars and a country sounding drum part.
- How is the movement of the melody structured (meter, flow, rhythm)?
Remember…melody is the single most important part of any song! Whether it's sung or played instrumentally, that melody & its appeal have a huge effect on the song's likability. If you're the songwriter, this is your money-maker.
Protect it at all costs! If you're the drummer, you need to recognize & accept a harsh reality. Your drum part will NOT be the reason that listeners like the song! It can certainly be a contributing factor, but it will NOT the big reason.
I was a drummer long before I became a songwriter, so I've stood on both sides of this argument. Drummers prefer challenging parts…songwriters want parts appropriate for the song.
And while I do empathize, it all boils down to this…“arrangements are created as support for songs”, not the other way around. What matters most is how your part effects the song as a whole.
Moving right along, try to craft something that compliments the melodic movement of the song. Once you have a specific part in mind, try playing it along with the melody.
If others are involved in the project, ask for their input. If you’re working alone, songwriter/musician forums can be useful for obtaining outside perspectives.
- What type of arrangement do you have in mind?
I'm not suggesting the whole arrangement be set-in-stone before starting the drum part, but it’s helpful to have at least a rough idea.
- Do you plan to use piano?
- Are you thinking of multiple guitar tracks?
- Might additional percussion be a good fit (congas, tambourine, shaker, etc.)?
What I’m getting at is this…whatever ideas you do have for the arrangement, factor those into the creation of your drum part.
I’ll list a few more in-depth examples:
A) If you plan a busy arrangement…with lots of instrumental movement, a simpler drum part may be better. A song isn't a contest for dominance! If you have cool ideas for intricate piano parts & a tasteful signature guitar track,
your drum part should allow those parts to shine through. No, the drums don’t have to be boring! Just build the complexities into simpler song sections. Those piano & guitar parts I referred to…let's say they’re intended for the verses & bridge.
That means your chorus sections can employ a more sophisticated drum part. Varying the dominant instrument from section to section adds variety to an arrangement. It also makes the dominant instrument more noticeable.
When that chorus section rolls around & the drums start kicking butt, that change immediately grabs the listeners’ attention.
B Sometimes arrangements are sparse. It’s not unheard of to strip instrumentation down, utilizing only bass & drums for the verse sections. This type of arrangement presents the perfect opportunity for creative drum parts.
You can experiment with intricate syncopation, polyrhythms…really flex those creative muscles.
Limited, simple instrumentation = fewer potential conflicts.
C) If some parts of your arrangement are already fixed (final), do those parts heavily accent specific counts? Do several parts accent the same counts? I ask these questions because it is possible to over-do accents.
Too much duplication can make an arrangement sound stiff.
D) What impact, if any, would you like drums to have on the songs’ development.... beginning-to-end?
I’ll clarify that question a bit by breaking it into smaller parts:
a) Would you like the song to build as it progresses?
If you do, drums are an easy way to achieve that end. It's not uncommon to bring them in gradually, layering in additional complexity & momentum as the song progresses.
b Would you like a specific section of the song to jump out & grab the listener’s attention? (snippet #2) One way to achieve that is to hold back much of the instrumentation (including all the drums).
The song you hear playing in the background does exactly that. "The Real World" begins with a verse comprised of a single guitar & vocal, adds an organ around the half-way point,
then smacks you all at once with the entry of drums, bass, piano, a second guitar & doubled vocal.
c) Would you prefer drums to play a minimal part in the songs’ development?
One way to achieve that is with a consistent sounding drum track. Something with the same feel start-to-finish. "Rain King" by Counting Crows is a great example of consistency.
d) Would a change in drum tempo, from half time - to full time be useful? (snippet #3)
It’s a common method for varying the feel of a song. Say your song is set at 120 BPM. The beat used for your verse sections can be made to feel as if it's being played at 60 BPM, while the choruses are played full-time (120 BPM).
Selecting Beat Patterns
Have you ever heard a song on the radio & been instantly being drawn to it? For years I accepted that experience at face value, never bothering to ask myself why. Then I began writing songs. As a writer, I discovered it was in my best interest to explore those whys.
Why am I attracted to some songs more than others? For me, the answer has a lot to do with the feel & flow of a song. Both of which depend upon beat & rhythmic choices.
You may have noticed that the subtitle for this section is plural - ”patterns”. Ideally, you will select MORE THAN ONE.
It's not uncommon to use 2 or 3 variations of a basic pattern for the verses of a song, then select something entirely different for the choruses.
Bridge sections are often assigned unique patterns, to help set them apart from the rest of the song.
Before leaving this section, I’ll share a few commonly used methods for building in variation. (*All examples assume a right-handed drummer.)
1) You can vary the specific part of the drum set being played by the right hand from section-to-section. (snippet #4) For example - hi-hat for the verses, ride cymbal for the chorus sections.
It's a small change, but the impact on the overall texture of the song can be quite dramatic. For additional variety, you can sprinkle in a few hi-hat openings, as this example does in the verse sections.
2) You can vary hi-hat technique within a given song section. Playing it tightly-closed produces a very crisp, structured sound. Playing it semi-opened gives you a looser, free-floating feel. It's common for harder-driving songs to use the 2nd option.
Pop rock & country tend to employ the tightly closed version, but often combine the 2 techniques. For example - tightly closed most of the verse, then semi-opened for the final measure or two. That small change produces a shift in texture just prior to entry of the chorus. The variance also serves to announce the coming of a change. It often precedes a cymbal crash, which punctuates the actual change in sections.
3) You can employ a basic right-hand rhythm, then utilize misc. percussion to embellish the feel of the pattern. For example - a quiet 1/4 note right-hand hi-hat (1-2-3 & 4 counts), then on a separate track record a tambourine or soft-shake to fill-in the straight 1/8 note feel. That gives it a busier, more constant overall texture. It also adds variety & depth to the rhythmic feel.
4) It’s common in metal & hard rock genres for the right hand to play a straight pattern on the edge of a crash-ride cymbal. This technique produces an effect comparable to a prolonged crash.
When it’s combined with the heavy rates of compression that are commonly used in those genres, it adds a blurred, heavy edge to the song.
I have one final piece of beat-pattern advice to pass on to non-drummer songwriters. Please…when you put together a song demo, DON’T select a single mechanical beat & use it beginning-to-end.
IMHO nothing makes a demo sound more amateurish! It doesn’t have to sound like Neil Peart, but it does need some variation.
Remember…every part of an arrangement impacts the listener’s impression. That includes your drum track!
The Story on Rolls (Fills)
You’ll find that opinions vary on….
· when to use a roll
· what type is most appropriate
· how complex they should be
For drummers, many of those decisions are determined by personal style.
Since most non-drummer songwriters lack percussive expertise, they tend to be guided by listening experience.
For this tutorial, I’m going to stick to basics & allow plenty of room for personal discretion.
Beats serve primarily to establish rhythmic feel, but rolls are used for a variety of functions:
1) Prevent monotony - In other words, to break up the consistent flow established by your beats, making the overall rhythm track more interesting.
2) Serve as fills… much as lead licks, keyboard or bass riffs do. Rolls are frequently placed between lyric/melody lines to help fill gaps & maintain the momentum.
3) Indicate (announce) a coming change, as demonstrated by the next audio clip.
Some examples being….
- the start of a new vocal sequence
- a change from verse to chorus
- a shift in dynamics…quiet to loud, or visa-versa
Rolls are also used in combination with lead licks, or other fill elements. (snippet #6)
When they’re employed in this way, caution should be exercised. You want to avoid timing conflicts between fill instruments.
Bottom line – it’s harder to pull-off, but very cool when it’s done cleanly!
It’s common to alternate fill instruments. You can use a drum roll this time, a guitar lick next time, keyboard run, and so on.
This will get you even more variety, with the added benefit of making each fill instrument more prominent.
Listeners notice them more because they’re the only instrument presenting variation at that particular moment.
To Crash or Not-To Crash
Cymbal crashes are useful tools when employed tastefully.
Here are a few examples of common applications:
- to accent, or call attention to a specific count within a measure
- to add dynamics to a section of music by boosting the high-end frequencies & overall volume of that specific section
- to mark a change in the structure of the song (for example, moving from the verse to chorus)
- in combination with rolls, particularly longer, more elaborate ones…to break them up, reinforce accents and add color, as shown in the brief demonstration below
"Arrangement 101" resource pg.